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Which Oak Is Best For Making Wine?

Oak has been the wine-makers choice for barrels for many years. The use of wood in barrels can be found over 3,000 years ago. The marriage between oak and fine wine was established about 1,000 years ago. The use of oak became more prevalent in France, when the wine-makers had access to forests planted by Napoleon. The timber from these forests was used for ship-building. With the use of other materials in ship-building, these forests became available for other uses. There are five main forests that are harvested for the production of wine barrels. Each forest produces timber with different characteristics that can be exploited in the production of wine. The forests are known as Cosgues, Allier, Nevers, Limousin and Trancois and the current aim in forest management attempts to harvest trees about 200 years old. The tightness of the grain effects the amount of oak flavors that enter the wine.

There is of course American oak that is used in the production of barrels. American oak trees are felled at between sixty and one hundred years old and there does not seem to be any differentiation between the characteristics of timber from different forests. Barrels all over the world are generally made in the traditional French way, however there is often a difference in the way the oak is prepared for use. The French coopers only air dry the oak for up to two years, prior to use, whilst most other coopers kiln dry the timber. It is difficult to understand why one method is better than the other for barrel manufacture, since the end product is dried to the same moisture level, with air drying taking longer. There is also much discussion as to whether the timber should be split or sawn. The French copper only splits the timber. Nevertheless French oak barrels are usually at least double the price of American oak barrels. There are many other oaks used in barrel making, for example, Canadian oak and Hungarian oak.

In order to produce different effects on wine, the inside of the barrels a sometimes “fired”. When partially completed, the barrel is placed over a wood fire to partially “char” the inside. Oak barrels are made in sizes ranging from two liters to thousands of liters. It is becoming more common to ferment wines in stainless steel tanks, before being placed into oak barrels for aging. The new oak barrels will also impart more flavor into the wine than older oak barrels, so the wine-makers need to constantly be updating their barrel stock, irrespective of the type of oak used in the barrels.

As can be seen from this information, the type of oak is only a small component, but an important one, affecting the final product. Traditions die hard in the wine industry and perhaps the French oaks still has the “wood” on the others!

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